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 A Weighted Blending of the Washington and du Bois Approaches

Lateef Mtima

Excerpted from: Economic Empowerment Strategies for the New Millennium - Revisiting the Washington-du Bois Dialectic , 42 Howard Law Journal 391-429, 418-428 (Spring 1999) (132 Footnotes)

"Economic opportunity alone will not solve all [of African-America's] problems, of course, but it is the essential ground for other constructive developments."

"I don't know what White people owe us, but I am convinced they are not going to pay us."

A. Of Racial Reflexes, Social Activism and Implementing an African-American Economic Agenda

The success of the Civil Rights movement is that most white Americans no longer have to be persuaded that blacks are human beings, or that racial discrimination is morally wrong. Nonetheless, certain stubborn, racially reflexive fears and perceptions persist, which prevent many whites from regarding or interacting with blacks fully as equals, especially in highly subjective or intimate situations.

These notions that some white Americans retain about blacks are still so entrenched that they often outweigh objective considerations such as educational qualifications, legal incentives and/or quality of work or service. Accordingly, effective corrective measures need to speak specifically to these vestigial, discriminatory impulses.

Equal access for blacks to educational training, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action set-asides are each in their own way responsive to the problem. When an anti-discrimination law or an affirmative action program causes a white person to interact with a black person, racially biased attitudes sometimes change, because that white person's first hand knowledge of blacks is thereby expanded. The limitation of such measures however, is that they are designed to address the broader, overt and typically conscious racial attitudes of the pre-Civil Rights era. Thus, such measures tend to be coercive in application and/or limited in duration, and are otherwise often ill-suited to address some of the more subtle, covert and sometimes sub-conscious perceptions of blacks as inferiors that linger in our society.

Acknowledging the important changes in white American racial attitudes brought about by the Civil Rights movement, as well as the instinctual nature of the racial reflex that still survives, it may be prudent now for African- Americans to shift the emphasis of the struggle for equality away from issues of racial attitudes and towards issues of pragmatic, economic self-interest. Recognizing that white Americans' most pernicious notions about race have been mollified, it seems impractical to devote great or primary effort towards divesting whites of their few lingering, reflexive racial doubts and apprehensions. It is a different kind of problem, and one that the De Boisian legal rights emphasis and mechanisms fashioned during the Civil Rights era, may be inherently incapable of reaching.

Instead, African American empowerment efforts might be better directed towards providing whites with new incentives to abandon the discriminatory choices or practices that result from these racially reflexive feelings, whether they occur in response to Talented Tenth entreaties, the independent entrepreneur approach or something in between. The objective should be to reduce or eliminate the discriminatory impacts of these feelings, even if some whites remain presently unable to purge themselves of these feelings altogether.

Direct, ongoing economic benefits, crafted in the spirit of Washington's philosophy, probably provide a good incentive for the voluntary abandonment of such discriminatory practices. As discussed in Part III however, it would be a mistake to believe that exclusively economic incentives will be adequately effective. For African-Americans, possessing an Ivy League degree or devising the better mouse trap alone will not necessarily get you the job or land you that account.

Indeed, this is the factor that limits the viability of certain modern day, "purist" applications of Washington's philosophies, such as some of those that are espoused by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Like everyone else in modern society, it is likely that African Americans will continue to do business with and depend upon faceless conglomerates (who, in many respects, no more represent John Doe White America than they do John Doe Black America) for many important goods and services. Completely boycotting discriminating majority enterprises, to favor exclusively the alternative of black independent enterprise can not provide the entire solution, because it is simply unrealistic to expect that the African-American community can thrive virtually independent of the rest of the nation. Thus, in addition to emphasizing further development of independent economic strengths, the African-American empowerment agenda must also somehow recompense for the fact that, contrary to the experience (or at least the expectation) of most white Americans, the beneficial opportunities and other after products generated by majority enterprise generally do not "trickle down" proportionately into the black community.

Moreover, requiring African-Americans to develop separately and always bring something extra to the table is not only unfeasible, but it is also unfair. As Professor Wilkins points out, black candidates who have the same (albeit not superior) credentials as competing white candidates are often unfairly denied various opportunities. But if blacks with "merely equal" credentials are regularly or disproportionately overlooked, our society inadvertently takes a de facto step backwards, towards pre-Civil Rights inequality. Even if one does not accept today that a black candidate with the same credentials as a white candidate should be given a preference because of race, fair minds must agree that race should not be allowed to remain a perennial hurdle either.

Accordingly, because race still matters in ways that economic incentives alone can not completely offset, such incentives must be coupled with aspects of the Du Bois "social agitation" methods of the Civil Rights era, in order to achieve equitably further progress in the business and other arenas. However, the poultice should be mixed not so much with an eye towards altering how white Americans think about race in general, but merely towards changing how some whites still react to race on an otherwise level playing field. The mixture calls for the application of certain Du Boisian mechanisms towards the achievement of Washingtonian goals.

For starters, while it may not be necessary to return to the boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, African-Americans might nonetheless do well to take a page from the play-books of present day, conservative special interest groups, and construct an African-American Consumer Referendum on the issue of black consumer spending. Properly organized, black consumers can inform those majority enterprises that benefit (directly or indirectly) from billions in African-American consumer and business dollars, as to how their patronage should be appreciated.

This kind of targeting of political and social activism towards implementing an economic agenda can be applied to addressing some long-standing problems. Returning to the problem of the elite corporate law firm for example, one reason that such firms continue to resist meaningful inclusion of African-American lawyers, is their perception that they have no economic incentive to do so. A closer examination of some of the existing, but untapped economic power in the African-American community however, suggests that the elite corporate law firm is not as economically independent of the African- American community as some might believe.

Even if African Americans themselves do not account for a large percentage of the clients of such firms, blacks do purchase an awful lot of goods and services from the powerful conglomerates that are clients. Sporting goods concerns, banking institutions, record companies, fast food franchises, designer wear entities and Hollywood are just some of the major business sectors that derive disproportionately huge profits from the black community.

Although a "pure" Washington approach might call for blacks to establish and patronize exclusively black companies which would provide these goods and services, it would be difficult for the African-American community to produce everything it needs, and in turn, to consume profitably everything it is capable of producing. It seems only practical then, to insist instead that the entities upon whom African Americans spend millions every year, do more than merely refrain from affirmative discrimination, but that they also avoid indirectly supporting it.

Should African Americans continue to purchase millions of hamburgers from an international fast food conglomerate, if that company purchases most or all of its hamburger buns from bakers who actively discriminate against blacks in terms of their hiring policies? How many pair of sneakers should African Americans buy from a billion dollar sporting goods company, if that company obtains the bulk of its laces from manufacturers whose hiring practices have remained lily white for the past thirty years? And from the perspective of these majority enterprises that profit from black consumers, shouldn't the "burden" of diversity be shared by the law firms to whom they pay astronomical fees?

On the other hand, the African-American economic empowerment agenda need not be limited to reactive consumer or employee issues. Perhaps the more significant benefit to be derived from a blended combination of Du Bois and Washington's approaches is obtained when it is used to facilitate more than the mere delivery of African Americans' fair share of American Pie. A weighted- blending approach can also be deployed to provide blacks with greater opportunities to participate in the apple picking, baking and divvying up of the slices as well.

The recent growth in African-American entrepreneurship in some ways reflects this application of a weighted-blending approach. Recent statistics indicate that African-American business has been growing at a faster rate than that of American business overall. "Between 1987 and 1992, the number of black- owned businesses increased 46 percent, from 424,200 to 620,900, according to the Census Bureau's Survey of Minority-Owned Business Enterprises. The total number of U.S. businesses increased 26 percent during the same time period." Needless to say, this marks a significant milestone in the progress of African-American independent entrepreneurship.

One explanation offered by some analysts and black business persons for this impressive progress is that today's African-American business person appears to be better and more broadly educated than ever before. Thus, in order to compete more effectively and reach and retain a broader clientele, Washington's black entrepreneur has adopted a page from the Book of Du Bois, no longer restricting training and preparation to the skills directly necessary to the specific chosen trade. Instead, today's black entrepreneur is now more likely to have college and other degrees, thereby expanding the potential for common ground between entrepreneur and clients beyond the subject of their immediate business dealings.

An even more progressive/less reactive strategy has resulted in the increased availability to African-American independent entrepreneurs of the financial capital necessary to get a business up and running, or enable an existing business to expand. In the past, the inability to obtain sufficient investment capital and financing was frequently cited by many African-American businesses as the primary reason for their failure or limited growth. Recently however, some of the nation's most prominent commercial and other lenders have become willing, and even eager to finance the African-American business person.

This change in banking attitudes may well have been the result of another application of Du Bois' methods of social activism towards attaining Washingtonian economic objectives. Dissatisfied with the lack of investment by many banks in African-American communities, some African-American and other civil action groups engaged in protest and lobbying that helped to bring about the enactment, amendment and implementation of the Community Reinvestment Act. One purpose of the CRA is to help ensure that banks don't discriminate against racial minority or low income communities, by unfairly refusing to make loans in such neighborhoods. "In places where local community groups have made active use of the law, the CRA has proven to be a remarkably effective tool in opening access to credit for those who have felt previously shunned by the banking system."

Mandated compliance with CRA requirements forced some banks to investigate the opportunities for financial development in various African-American communities. These investigations appear to have played an important role in helping banks to see that investment in African-American business is likely to be more bonanza than burden.

When conducted properly by banks who are knowledgeable about their local markets, who use this knowledge to develop suitable products, and have adequately promoted these products to the low- and moderate-income groups, [ [ [CRA] community development lending can be a safe, sound, and profitable business. Increased focus on such lending has helped financial institutions discover new markets that may have been underserved before.

Thus, it might be said that it took Du Bois-like "agitation" to get majority lenders and others to see that black entrepreneurs can compete and advance in society by building Washington's better, or at the very least, highly competitive mouse trap. And for lenders and black entrepreneurs, the cooperation has often proved mutually beneficial.

However, the success of the CRA and similar gambits should not be misconstrued to diminish the fact that in response to these and other capital finance problems, some African-Americans have in the past and should continue in the future to form their own lending entities. At every level, development of independent economic resources within the African-American community should remain the paramount, albeit not the sole objective of the economic empowerment agenda.

Full exploitation of all of the various kinds of economic leverage currently dormant in the African-American community, however, requires broad, cross-constituency organization. In approaching the new millenium, leadership of the kind traditionally associated with the mechanisms of social activism will be crucial.

B. The Critical Role of the African-American Lawyer

African-American lawyers must undertake a leadership role in implementing the foregoing economic empowerment and similar strategies. Like the religious leaders and civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and 60s, the African-American attorney is today well positioned to take up this mantle. She has access to the necessary skills and information, and has been specially trained to interface with manifold constituencies, a key consideration in organizing the African-American community. And the debate at this juncture being more practical than moral, more secular than spiritual in nature, she may be in the best position to organize appropriately African- American business people, consumers and the like, and to advise them as to the importance of these strategies and their ultimate objectives.

African-American lawyers can begin to satisfy these responsibilities simply by obtaining the specific legal skills most relevant to the current needs of the black community. Doggedly preparing for a lifetime career in a large, elite corporate law firm, while eschewing completely the basic expertise pertinent to advising small and mid-size minority businesses, may not always be the most pragmatic course of action. This is not to say that African-American lawyers should avoid the elite corporate firms. To the contrary, diligently working to open the corporate boardrooms to present and future black lawyers, while at the same time obtaining skills immediately useful to the black business community is an immensely beneficial strategy.

Properly approached, practice with an elite corporate law firm and similar mainstream positions can prove an extremely useful means towards the important ends of African-American economic empowerment. However, the black lawyer pursuing such routes will need to do more than merely "stick to her guns" with respect to her ultimate objective of applying her acquired skills to benefit the black community. It will also be her job to assist various constituencies within that community in appreciating the relevance of corporate and similar opportunities to African-American empowerment issues.

Pressuring majority companies to leverage their influence towards increased inclusion of blacks in dependent and related businesses, working to establish more businesses in the black community and getting more African-Americans to do business with each other are strategies which effectuate these goals in obvious ways. The benefits to be obtained from some other tactics may not be as readily apparent.

For example, with regard to the problem of the elite corporate law firm, it would not be unreasonable for some hard working African Americans to ask why is this particular discrimination so important? Bluntly put, what difference does it make to the average black person if a few elitist blacks are denied high profile, six-figure salaries and instead are forced to accept "ordinary" (or even heaven forbid, socially relevant) jobs?

When such questions arise, the African-American lawyer must be among those sufficiently informed and genuinely reflective so as to supply meaningful answers. She must help to remind us that it was the "average" African-American who sacrificed, protested and marched, and scrubbed floors and cleaned the homes of white families, all so that their own children would someday have the right and opportunity to go as far as their hard work and individual accomplishments might warrant. She must help to remind us that those "average" African-Americans made those sacrifices so that their grandchildren, upon demonstrating that they are among the best in the competition, would not be denied the same opportunities offered to whites with the very same or even lesser credentials. And most important, she must remind us that after earning their places at the conference tables of power, influence and governance, the granddaughters and grandsons of those "average" African-Americans must not be cajoled into accepting merely "good jobs", while the boardrooms for which they are qualified remain closed to them. Full equality remains at best an aspiration, so long as these true seats of power are permitted to continue to display the sign "WHITE ONLY."

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